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The unexpected beauty of studying Neanderthals

Neanderthal science gets nod from the Nobel Prize committee.

Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo posed with a replica of a Neanderthal skeleton at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany,, Oct. 3. Pääbo was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries on human evolution.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

If you suspected a distant relative or ancestor of an illicit liaison, how hard would you try to learn the truth if it meant shaking the family tree?

In recent decades, Svante Pääbo revealed the ultimate scandal in human history with his scientific research showing that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred in the ancient past, giving rise to people today who have genetic sequences inherited from Neanderthal ancestors — and who can face higher risk for disease as a result. When the Nobel Prize committee awarded Pääbo with its 2022 prize in medicine and physiology last week, it made clear that knowing the history of humans is critical to understanding ourselves today. The prize is an endorsement of the unraveling of mysteries in the human family tree, no matter the cost to our sense of superiority as a species.


This is welcome news. Like the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope late last year, ancient DNA studies, or paleogenetics, the field that Pääbo pioneered, is about peering into the distant past. Pääbo sequenced the Neanderthal genome from 40,000-year-old bones and even discovered a new hominid ancestor dubbed the Denisovan. With so much scientific research today focused on new technologies and gadgets, and necessarily on curing urgent diseases and solving climate change, it’s refreshing that there still arises the occasion to celebrate the seeking of knowledge for its own sake, for what it might reveal to us about ourselves and our place in the vastness of the universe and the long history of life on the planet. (And lest that be seen as too frivolous, Pääbo’s work in 2020 revealed that humans who had inherited certain Neanderthal genetic sequences were at higher risk for severe complications if they contracted COVID-19.)

What Pääbo has discovered to date places humans in the context of other species, hominids in ancient history. It helps us see ourselves not just as dominators of history, but players on the stage performing our parts for the time we have on earth. How liberating to recognize not just science that heals us today, but that reminds us of the need for humility with respect to our past.


Bina Venkataraman is an editor-at-large for Globe Opinion.